In a timeless, nameless city, a renegade cop and his partner, a sentient, tough talking …bicycle… try to clean up the streets any way they can.
That’s the threadbare plot for “Undercover Bike Cop”, a short film we discovered at this year’s Horror-O-Rama. Channelling equal parts Quentin Depeaux and Walter Hill, this charmingly surreal 30 minute short comes from Toronto based director Brandon Espana who we discovered after getting his energetic elevator pitch in a convention hall basement.
After following to his table of ‘Retro Video’ projects and getting sucked into the orbit of his manic energy, we had to know more about how “Undercover Bike Cop” came into existence. Awash in synthwave style neon and aglow with 80s film grain goodness, the short shows some serious technical chops from Espana, a one man production shop; shooting, writing, editing and directing his projects with a close crew from film school on non existent budgets. We were lucky enough to grab some time out of his hectic schedule to pick his brain on how the project came to be, why he went behind the camera and how filmmakers need to step up their game in the new decade.
“Like, everybody just fucking does John Carpenter” says a chuckling Espana over the phone “That was one filmmaker I just didn’t want this short to be influenced by”, when asked about what drove the making of “Undercover Bike Cop“.
“I wanted to do something like Walter Hill” he says “the Warriors was a big influence on it, Streets of Fire as well”. We share a Michael Paré appreciation moment and he continues: “Another influence was “China Girl” by Abel Ferrara…later on during the filming…the colour palette, Susperia was a big one, was a big influence for the indoor scene. And then Blade Runner was a big influence for the outdoor scenes…how to use lighting…that was all natural light”.
“I wanted to experiment with stuff and what better way to start with than something that you actually enjoy?”.
Blade Runner and Walter Hill are apt comparisons for the visuals Espana delivers. While an undoubtedly fresh filmmaker, the technical skill of “Undercover Bike Cop” , and it’s ultra-hip, 80s aesthetic immediately stand out. When asked what came first, the story or the style, he’s candid, explaining that he and his friends had the idea for “Bike Cop” back in high school for a class project, and revised it for the short. “I thought of bringing in the specific style might…make it a bit more appealing. Because I just like that style (Synthwave) in general…I wanted to experiment with stuff and what better way to start with than something that you actually enjoy?”. He continues “I think music music was a big part of it. Just listening to it and then getting a certain style from it” he laughs again, “…it kind of sounds weird…but a tempo from it that I could imagine a scene playing out at… just listening to it on repeat”.
When asked how he got going in filmmaking however, it wasn’t immediately behind the camera: “Originally, I wanted to be in front of a camera. I wanted to be an actor and I did acting auditions and stuff for a couple of years and then. I don’t know, I just wasn’t feeling it anymore…and then I thought: Hey, maybe if I can’t be in front of the camera, I’d want to be behind the camera”.
From fooling around with a DV camera (which he still has) to working on videos in high school to eventually attending Humber Film School in Toronto, he’s now firmly planted on the other side of the lens, doing it all himself. “I didn’t really have anybody. I didn’t have any like art people or whatever, we didn’t have any like production assistants,” he laughs again “maybe one on one day… because for the most part it was just me and the actors.”. I ask if he’s more of a lone wolf or a collaborator. “I like to have control over most of what I do…. as you can see by how my name is plastered all over ‘Undercover Bike Cop” he laughs again.
“There was a lot of moments where, like, I would want to get things done…done, done, done, done…And then I would like it try to rush things. And it would never work out”.
We speak a bit more on being a creator and if it’s better to go in alone or take the plunge into film school, a decision that many first time filmmakers struggle with. “Try not to care what anybody else thinks about the dream. Like your dreams are what you want to do. Like, ‘oh, I want to be a filmmaker’ And they’re just like….. what? No.’ People would say that! And I’d say: Just you watch”. And film school? “College actually was useful for one thing….it got me a lot of connections for people I work with. So I got actors and and sound people and I got people that were willing to help me with my project. So that’s kind of one thing that some school did help me with.” He then goes on about another lesson learned from school, one that strikes at the heart of the indie creators dilemma… “There was a lot of moments where, like, I would want to get things done…done, done, done, done…And then I would like it try to rush things. And it would never work out”. Espana sighs and continues …”It’s not gonna get done the way you wanted it to. So be you have to be patient. Got to have the passion for it and stay committed”.
On his future projects, Espana says to expect something totally different from the slow burning, film noir style of ‘Undercover Bike Cop‘. “I’m still fully feeling things out for sure….Im experimenting…I want do do something completely different.” We talk about his new project, a Sci-Fi ‘Trash’ film shot on VHS entitled “Forgotten Trash”.
“Coming back from Horror-o-Rama, a lot of people would just message me after this …’Like, I can’t wait to watch what you do next’. He laughs again, and goes on “ I’m ..uh..kind of happy because ..well, the next one I uh…. I purposely made it. Not good. Like it’s not good on purpose.” I ask what he means by “not good on purpose’ and his deep knowledge of VHS cinema comes out. We talk about monuments of awfulness like ‘Things’ and ‘Feeders’, straight to video movies form the 80s that are addictive, stroke inducing artifacts of another era without any care for quality.
“There’s pressure that’s been lifted off of me being like, okay, …if people don’t like it, I get it. I actually worked hard on this one (‘Undercover Bike Cop‘). But that’s not the case for Forgotten Trash.. That is not the case in the least!”
“The style is very it’s completely different from ‘Undercover Bike Cop’ It’s very amateurish. It’s it’s in the name. It’s supposed to be a trash film. I’m making a movie that is a the spin on poor quality… in terms of technical aspects of film making, the camera sound and all the stuff …So I feel like it does for at least me. It’s completely opposite. There’s pressure that’s been lifted off of me being like, okay, …if people don’t like it, I get it. I actually worked hard on this one (‘Undercover Bike Cop‘). But that’s not the case for Forgotten Trash.. That is not the case in the least!”
And as for where he sees genre films going in the new decade? Espana’s obviously a film buff and this gets him going: “I’m sick and tired of it. It’s now just franchising everything. We don’t need a sequel to a bunch of movies. Just keep it at one. And then move on and do another idea.” I ask if this means there won’t be an “Undercover Bike Cop 3”, an idea he jokingly, but immediately shoots down.
“I’m not the biggest fan of these sort of like slow paced like I guess could call it …art house films either. Because it’s becoming mainstream…. it’s not an indie thing anymore. It is becoming mainstream to do this style like anything else, and they don’t get it”.
“I’m not the biggest fan of these sort of like slow paced like I guess could call it …art house films either. Because it’s becoming mainstream…. it’s not an indie thing anymore. It is becoming mainstream to do this style like anything else, and they don’t get it”. He goes on to lament how this style, like 80’s Slashers or 90’s Teen Horror will burn out after a few years. “People are liking it a lot…I think when I when I first watched Hereditary I fuckin hated it” he chuckles heartily before quickly correcting himself “No no…It’s really OK, I liked it…but now there’s so much. I like something a little more lively in what I watch, you don’t have to make everything two-and-a-half hours long! That’s kind of tiring. I just want to see, and I feel like a lot of other directors do too, we just want to see more original stuff.”
You can watch Undercover Bike Cop below (or order on VHS!), and follow Retro Video online for more info on Brandon Espana’s upcoming films.